Review: Dick Whittington and his cat at the Oxford Playhouse

Many Christmas traditions fall by the wayside as the kids get older. Goodbye nativity plays, school Christmas fairs, visits to Santa and the yearly panto. Wait! Goodbye panto? Oh no, we don’t!

When the Oxford Playhouse invited us to their 2018 pantomime, Dick Whittington and his cat, I was a little worried about taking two teens to the performance. Both are obviously too cool to shout at baddies, take part in the sing song or clap along. Or are they?

Dick Whittington: the first half

Sarah the Cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Sarah the Cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

*Spoiler alert*. Contains details of songs, jokes and plot (yes, I’m sure you think you know this).

The Oxford Playhouse version of Dick Whittington is a loosely adapted version of the original tale. With added panto scenes. Think mice in remote controlled cars, a monkey called Brian and a Brexit bus. Exactly how you’d imagine it.

The first half is a musical extravaganza. From the opening ‘Don’t stop believin’ to Nirvana’s ‘Smells like teen spirit and John Legend’s ‘All of me’ the songs and choreography are brilliant.

An early bakery scene produces the first big laughs. In Generation Game style, Dick and his cat decorate cream cakes as they move along a conveyor belt. Slowly, then a bit faster. You know what’s going to happen. It’s still funny.

King Rat and Scummy, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
King Rat and Scummy, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

My favourite character, without a doubt, was King Rat, played by Max Olesker. King Rat has plans to buy a bakery (or maybe a chain of sandwich shops, Rat-a-manger), become mayor of London, then foreign secretary and finally to take Britain out of the world. Sound familiar?

The youngsters were excellent too. In a moment of recognition my son discovered why the boy he sits next to in English had missed lots of lessons recently. Do teenage boys not talk to each other? (No need to answer).

Mr Fitzwarren and Sarah, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Mr Fitzwarren and Sarah, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

Sarah the Cook plays the Dame. In time honoured tradition she is in love with Mr Fitzwarren and wears a variety of colourful and wacky costumes. Despite some strategically placed buns on her cook’s dress she wasn’t as smutty as expected. Whilst there were a few quips around Dick’s name most of the adult jokes were references to Brexit. Personally, I rather like a rude joke but I know they’re not for everyone.

It was a brave move to finish the first half with a panto version of a Les Mis song. One of my favourite numbers in the musical, reworded for Dick Whittington. What a terrific way to end!

Dick Whittington: the second half

Cat and Alice, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Cat and Alice, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

The panto action moved swiftly from life on board Shippy McShipface en route to Timbuktu (via the Titanic) to a surreal under the water scene. In complete darkness the cast swam amongst jellyfish and a mermaid. I might have guessed that blooming song, Baby Shark, would follow. I definitely didn’t envisage a Doctor Who tardis.

But how else would the characters end up on a tropical island? Subsequently imprisoned, with the help of Brian the monkey. Although not before cat and the Dame had a calypso moment on the beach.

Cat and Sarah the cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Cat and Sarah the cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

Yes, it all got a little hectic. Add in a Spice Girls medley, lots of dancing and a bee hating Queen. There was hardly room for Dick Whittington in the second half. And they wonder why panto is a peculiarly British institution!

Wait. Slow down. Back to the original tale, and the mayoral election. In a nod to political incorrectness King Rat announces that only middle class boys can vote. Of course, he doesn’t win. But does Dick? Now that would be telling.

All works out well in the end. Rat gets his comeuppance, Dick and Alice fall in love and Katy Perry’s Firework provides a fitting finale with added pyrotechnics.

I know the teens enjoyed it. I saw them laughing when they thought I wasn’t looking. Teen daughter was suitably embarrassed when dad mistakenly stood up for the ladies song. And teen boy was incredulous to discover I didn’t realise the cat’s moves were based on Fortnite dancers. That’s because I’m an adult.

Dick Whittington and his cat is on until Sunday 6 January 2019. Purchase tickets direct from the Oxford Playhouse.

Disclosure

Our tickets were provided by Oxford Playhouse. This is an honest review of our experience. All words are my own; all pictures provided by the Oxford Playhouse.

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Four scenic walks around the Brecon Beacons National Park

My first holiday away from family was a pony trekking trip in the Brecon Beacons in South Wales. I remember eating cowboy pie, incessant rain, singing along to Karma Chameleon on the school bus (yes, it was that long ago) and plenty of red mud. I loved it. It was also the first time I saw mountains in real life. Since then I’ve climbed plenty of hills but I’ve still got a soft spot for the Brecon Beacons. These four walks from our recent holiday show all that’s great about the area:

1. Hay Bluff and Lord Hereford’s knob (Twmpa)

Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye
Hay Bluff, near Hay-on-Wye

This is a popular route close to Hay-on-Wye. You could easily walk to Hay Bluff from Hay-on-Wye but we cheated and drove to the car park at the foot of the hill. From there it’s a steep walk to the 2221 ft summit of Hay Bluff. You won’t be alone. You won’t get lost either as the path is easily visible from the car park. Up top we discovered our first trig point of the week emblazoned with a red dragon. Oh, and a great view of the Wye Valley.

Film buffs might know that scenes from ‘An American werewolf in London’ were shot around Hay Bluff; we saw plenty of moorland ponies but fortunately no werewolves.

Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa
Walking the escarpment towards Twmpa

A lot of people conquer Hay Bluff and return to the car park. If you’ve time it’s worth extending your walk to include a nearby peak, Twmpa. It’s a lovely walk along the escarpment before you temporarily lose height to cross the Gospel Pass Road, the highest road pass in Wales. Once across the road it’s back up the hill to reach the summit of Twmpa, also known as Lord Hereford’s knob. This name was, as expected, the subject of much hilarity with the teens.

The mist descended on us, seemingly from nowhere, as we took a break on the summit. A sunny autumn day quickly turned into a chilly pea souper. And did we imagine the sound of werewolves?

Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons
Descent off of Twmpa, Brecon Beacons

From Twmpa we headed downhill towards the next peak, Rhos Dirian. We emerged from the mist and passed an unhappy girl trailing behind a Duke of Edinburgh group. Shortly afterwards we took the steep path down the side of the edge and started our return to the car park. Although it’s easy to see where you need to be (the car park is visible from quite a distance) do bring a map to ensure you take the right tracks.

2. Walk around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve

Although a relatively short walk (4 miles) the AA route around Craig Cerrig-gleisiad Nature Reserve is full of interest. The route takes you to the summit of Fan Frynych and around the cliff edges of Craig Cerrig-gleisiad. Alternatively if you want to stay low you could simply explore the reserve’s large amphitheatre carved out by ice and landslides.

After entering the reserve we turned north and followed an undulating dry stone wall for a mile or so through dying bracken. An uphill stretch followed which took us to to a bumpy plateau and another dragon trig point.

Summit of Fan Frynych
Summit of Fan Frynych, Brecon Beacons

Craig Cerrig-Gleisiad nature reserve is famous for its arctic-alpine plants and birds such as ring ouzel and peregrine falcons. In time honoured tradition we didn’t see any of these but we played hide and seek with a couple of grouse near the summit trig.

View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
View from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

The summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du can be seen from many walks in the Brecon Beacons including this one. We were the only people on Fan Frynych but wondered how many were on top of these rather more popular peaks.  Certainly I recall a steady stream of walkers when we climbed Pen y Fan.

Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad
Start of descent from Craig Cerrig-gleisiad

After lunch we circled the top of the cliffs before tackling the downhill section. This was extremely steep and quite slippy in places. If, like me, you’ve got ageing knees you might be better off exploring alternative descents!

Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve
Craig Cerrig-gleisiad nature reserve, Brecon Beacons

3. Caerfanell Valley and Carn Pica

This was another AA walk, following the extended version of the Skyline Walking above the Caerfanell Valley route (only available in the AA book, not online). The first section, up on to and along the edge of Craig y Fan Ddu, was pretty hard going due to the bitter wind. Not pleasant at all despite the views. It was a relief to turn out of the wind.

View from Waun Rydd
View from Waun Rydd

With the wind behind us, we followed the well marked path across the moorland of Waun Rydd. It took us a while to decide on a picnic spot as most of the area is exposed and marshy but we finally found one with a view over to Pen-y-Fan. Only to discover that neither of us were carrying the sandwiches. Whoops. Thankfully we had some snacks to tide us over.

View from Carn Pica
View from Carn Pica, Brecon Beacons

Lunch, of sorts, over we walked on to experience one of my favourite sections of the walk. The views from the beehive Carn Pica and down to Talybont Reservoir and across to the Black Mountains were stunning, possibly my favourite in the Brecon Beacons. With one eye on the view we continued along the edge of the escarpment, passing the tempting ridge route to Allt Lwyd and then traversing cliffs to reach another smaller cairn (in feature photo). From here it was possible to take a short diversion to visit the wreckage and memorial of a Canadian plane crash. In hindsight I wish we had. But we had a hangry teen, about to die of starvation, with us.

View from near Carn Pica
View from near Carn Pica

Instead we walked downhill to the second scenic treat of this walk, a series of waterfalls. The Brecon Beacons are well known for their waterfalls, particularly those at Ystradfellte. The ones on this route are a quieter alternative although given the size of the Blaen-y-Glyn car parks I’m guessing this is not always the case. The path follows the Caerfanell River, with some added diversions around fallen trees or particularly boggy bits.

At the largest waterfall we turned into the woodland where we discovered the walk had a sting in its tail. It was a very steep trek up through a section of felled forest back to the car park!

Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk
Caerfanell waterfall, near Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon Beacons

If, after the walk, you’re looking to appease hungry children (or adults) I recommend the Old Barn Tea rooms. Follow the signs from the car park; it’s bigger and busier than you expect given their apparent remoteness. Oh, and they have great coffee.

4. Climbing the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

For our last walk we drove back to England. This walk is in Herefordshire and just outside the Brecon Beacons boundary but as it was recommended to us by the National Park visitor centre I’m including it here. Particularly as it was my favourite walk of the week.

We reached the start after a long, mostly single track, drive from Hay-on -Wye to the picnic site signposted near Llanveynoe. As we hardly saw another car on the journey it was a surprise to arrive and find the small parking area full. Fortunately another walker was just returning so we were able to use his space.

Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill
Climbing the Cat’s Back, Black Hill

Once out of the car there’s a short, but steep, uphill section to the ridge. The path is clear and up top the vista is wide ranging. Flat green English countryside, aside from the Malverns, on one side of the ridge. The harsh moorland of the Black Mountains on the other. And dark storm clouds in front of us. Can you guess how this walk ended?

View from Black Hill
View from Black Hill

I’ve seen this route described as Herefordshire’s Striding Edge. As someone who isn’t too keen on exposure this worried me a little. Fortunately this is infinitely easier than Striding Edge. It’s a fun ridge route without the fear of death that, for me, spoils Striding Edge.

Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill
Walking the Cat’s Back up Black Hill

The route is called the Cat’s Back as it evidently looks like one of these from afar. We checked this out on the drive home but I’m not convinced. At the end of the ridge we found a huge cairn, just look at its scale compared to my teenage son!

Cairn on Black Hill
Cairn on Black Hill

Black Hill summit trig is a little further on. A good photo stop as always but on this route it’s the ridge that’s the star of the walk.

Summit of Black Hill
Summit of Black Hill

Our return was hastened by the ominous storm clouds blowing our way. With a forecast of possible thunderstorms, I decided to get off the summit sharpish so we galloped across moorland to reach our descent route. This took us down through the Olchon Valley which, on a fine day, would have been a great place to explore. A pity our descent was marred by hailstones.

Walking down Olchon Valley
Walking down Olchon Valley

We reached the bottom just as the hail eased off. The final part of the route runs along a road with derelict stone buildings on either side. Despite our soaking we’d had a great walk and I was almost tempted to head up the ridge for a second go!

Do you have a favourite walk in the Brecon Beacons?

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A circular drive over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes, Cumbria

If you’ve already read my post about things to do in and around Coniston you’ll know we spent a day driving over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes. The mountain scenery, challenging road conditions and smidgeon of danger made this one of my favourite drives in the UK; justification enough for a longer post with added photos!

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

Our adventure started from our holiday cottage in Little Langdale with a drive via Coniston to our first stop in Broughton-in-Furness.

Broughton-in-Furness

The town of Broughton-in-Furness is a world away from busy Lakeland towns such as Ambleside and Keswick. It’s a quiet market town, devoid of walking gear shops, twee tea rooms and tourists. Indeed its main claim to fame is that it’s home to best selling author, Richard Parsons. Never heard of him? Neither had I but if you’ve a teen in the house you’ve probably got one of his CGP GCSE revision books!

Despite the low key atmosphere of Broughton I rather enjoyed our short wander around the town. There’s free parking, a tourist information centre (I have a thing about always visiting these) and most importantly, a great bakery. Yes, we visited for cake.

Duddon Iron Furnace

From Broughton we drove to Duddon Iron Furnace. Built in 1736, this charcoal fired furnace was used to make pig iron. Unbeknown to us the site was closed for safety reasons and appears to have been for some time. That said, we could still view it from the bridleway which runs alongside. A little disappointing but still worth stopping for.

Duddon Iron Furnace
Duddon Iron Furnace

After leaving the furnace we retraced our route slightly and drove up the Duddon Valley towards Ulpha and on to Birker Fell Road. Leaden clouds and torrential showers obscured our views making me glad, for once, that I was in a car and not out on the mountains.

View from Birker Fell road
View from Birker Fell road

Stanley Force Waterfall

The rain stopped temporarily as we approached Dalegarth. Having seen very few visitors on the route so far I was surprised to suddenly see so many wandering beside the road. We soon realised our arrival coincided with that of the tourist train service from Ravenglass.

River Esk, en route to Stanley Ghyll Force
River Esk, en route to Stanley Ghyll Force

We didn’t have time to ride on the train but took advantage of a break in the weather to walk to Stanley Ghyll Force. The round trip to the waterfall takes about 45 minutes from the car park at Trough House Bridge. The path runs beside the River Esk and as we walked sun glinted through the trees and water drops sparkled on the ferns and mosses. It’s amazing how quickly a sliver of yellow can brighten your day.

Bridge on walk to Stanley Force waterfall
Bridge on walk to Stanley Force waterfall

The route crosses a couple of bridges; at the third and final bridge before the waterfall there’s a sign warning visitors to take care. The remaining section of stone path is slippy and there’s a steep drop into the river but it’s worth walking these last few minutes to the viewpoint. You’ll be rewarded with a Timotei-esque waterfall which drops 60 ft into a deep pool. Spectacular!

Retracing our steps we spent time discovering oodles of fungi around Trough House Bridge before rain hurried our retreat to the car. Time for a reviving (non-alcoholic) drink at the Woolpack Inn before our drive over the Passes.

Stanley Ghyll Force, near Eskdale
Stanley Ghyll Force, near Eskdale

Hardknott Roman Fort

Even if you’re not keen on continuing over the Pass it’s worth driving as far as Hardknott Roman Fort. There’s a small parking spot a few minutes after the cattle grid; alternatively you could park at the cattle grid and walk up. The steep road will give you a flavour of what’s to come…..

Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort

Hardknott Fort lies exposed to the elements, bordered by the rugged mountain landscape and overlooking the Eskdale valley. It’s hard to imagine how tough life would have been for the 500 strong cavalry who were stationed here to protect the Pass. Particularly as they were thought to be from the rather more agreeable climate of the Dalmation coast!

Hardknott Roman Fort
Hardknott Roman Fort

The low walls of the fort were partially restored a few years back. Together with the information boards these help visitors interpret the site. It’s possible to identify the location of granaries, lookout towers and garrison headquarters. There’s even a bath house;  I just hope it had the famous Roman central heating.

One tip for future visitors. If there’s a stream running down the road when you arrive then change into walking boots. I didn’t and my feet soon discovered the bog surrounding the fort!

Hardknott and Wrynose Passes

View over Hardknott Pass
View over Hardknott Pass

The Trip Advisor reviews for Hardknott and Wrynose Pass are five star but mostly recount how terrifying the drive is. Split tyres, vertiginous drops and scary encounters with cars on steep bends. Indeed, our first experience of the Pass was talking to a breakdown truck driver who’d come to Langdale to recover a car whose tyres had burst. Was the Pass really so terrible?

View from Hardknott over Wrynose Pass
View from Hardknott over Wrynose Pass

Er, no. Whilst the warning signs are ominous – 1 in 3 gradient, sharp bends, steep drops and unsuitable for caravans – it’s still possible to enjoy the drive. And the five star reviews are justified.

Of course you’ll need to keep your wits about you and your eyes on the road. Don’t get distracted by the scenery. Watch out for the sheep. And for road users coming from the opposite direction. Make sure you give way to those coming uphill.

You’ll also need a decent car. I was relieved to be driving a nifty hire car rather than our 14 year old Ford. Otherwise I fear we’d have been calling out that breakdown truck.

Wrynose Pass
Wrynose Pass

Hardknott was, for me, the harder of the two Passes. The road felt steeper and the bends sharper. I was tempted to stop and photograph the ‘Well done’ sign painted on the road at the end of Hardknott Pass but for obvious reasons it wasn’t practical to stop in many places. And that’s why the Passes look like a doddle in most of my photographs; I could only take them where it was safe to pull over.

Once over Wrynose Pass the road drops down towards Langdale and there’s the opportunity to get out of second gear. Although we had an interesting moment when we met a car midway between passing points. I was relieved we weren’t on the exposed side of the road!

Descent from Wrynose Pass
Descent from Wrynose Pass 

Blea Tarn

Our last stop of the day was Blea Tarn, a National Trust jewel of a lake. Its views of the Langdale Pikes are classic photograph material and we couldn’t resist taking rather a lot. That said, our teens decided they’d had enough of scenery for the day and remained in the car. How could they miss this?

Blear Tarn
Blea Tarn

Our 40 mile driving tour ended back in Little Langdale. Our tyres and brakes were intact, our photos numerous and we’d even managed to stay mostly dry. A successful day out for all.

More info

  • We followed the Coniston-Duddon Valley-Eskdale drive outlined on the Lake District drives website. Highly recommended.
  • The Passes are closed in winter conditions. Don’t attempt them in snow or ice!

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Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.

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